Pew’s Future of Digital Spaces and Their Role in Democracy

There is nothing quite like taking the time to respond to a research survey and then finding that your responses have been binned. Such was my experience in answering the 13th “Future of the Internet” canvassing by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. (To see the full report: URL.)

I post their questions and my answers below.

Considering the things you see occurring online, which statement comes closer to your view about the evolution of digital spaces. (Followed by 5 options.)

First, your questions are both constraining and a little lop-sided, making them very difficult to answer. In the first question you use the verb “evolving,” which suggests that digital spaces are developing some sort of fit to an environment, rather than being the environment themselves. The second question is loaded teleologically: things are either going to get better or worse, not different. While I can hope for better and I can hope for the political will of enough nations that the public sphere will get better, I can rest assured that 2035 will be a different landscape.

On the downward trajectory, we have to face the fact that the infrastructure upon which “digital public spaces” exists is largely in the hands of large corporations and/or nation states who have their own interests. Yes, some sort of tribalism is happening — though I don’t like to use a word once applied (albeit in a somewhat racist fashion) within a somewhat colonial project (anthropology), but, let’s be honest, it’s the colonialist technology that has set the awful ethno-centrist mind virus in motion and we can’t seem to put that genie back into its bottle. (What a terrible mixing of metaphors.)

While it is nor surprise that autocratic states seek to use the public sphere as a surveillance apparatus, it is rather appalling to see just how good a pairing the digital public sphere and autocracy are: the ready feeding of ethnocentric ideas to key groups keeping a larger population whipped into a threshold level of frenzy is impressive in ways that I would rather not be impressed.

That some corporations have benevolent impulses, in the face of capitalist impulses to maximize profits, which again seem to lean into ethnocentrism and autocracy, reveals that there is some hope for us.

Looking ahead to 2035, can digital spaces and people’s use of them be changed in ways that significantly serve the public good?

In a democratic and free society, I can imagine a digital public sphere in which each of us possesses a certified/verified online identity whose metadata and data we control fully. Fake/alternate identities will be available, but they will be clearly marked as such and we will understand that whoever is using a fake/alt ID is doing so for particular reasons. There will still be the ability to fake this new “Real ID” of course, which will have to be overseen by someone, but it will be rare enough, and difficult enough, that it will take a great deal of effort (time and money) to do so. This will not necessarily be a good for refugees, because immigration will now involve being issued a Real ID, but so long as we don’t tie such ID to all forms of commerce, it might be tolerable. Such an infrastructure can only exist, of course, in a benevolent state with no interest in controlling its citizens.

In such a scenario, we might escape some of the weirder/wilder problems of people saying things in the digital public sphere, but, honestly, the people shouting the loudest right now are real people and we can’t know if they actually mean the crazy stuff they say or if they are saying it for attention, power, money, something (e.g., Marjorie Taylor Greene). This scenario won’t avoid such individuals, but it might tamp down the swirl of misinformation created by adversarial state and non-state actors. As a folklorist, I don’t think misinformation is going to go away in such a scenario, because misinformation did just fine before any kind of digital public sphere, and it will continue to do just fine within one, but we might be able to return to something more like a pre-internet moment, in which we were not all seized by the latest bit of misinformation. (To be clear, the “pre-internet moment” was an historical oddity in which mass media dominated the American, and many other, information landscapes.)

Of Open Tabs and Persistent Concerns

I’ve left this logbook under-attended for a while now, and since I want to get back into writing mode, it’s a good time, an appropriate moment also to get back into posting here. Once again, one of the prompts for doing so is a browser full of tabs. A lot of interesting pages to digest and some sense that their contents will be useful later.

In general, I would say that the pages that remain open, that persist, in my web browsing fall into two categories which I have not yet been able to resolve into one. The first category is making and manufacturing and the future of work in the world. It results in open tabs like:

  • An Ars Technica interview with Cory Doctorow on his new novel, Walkaway in which Doctorow imagines a post-scarcity world built upon his interest in open-source software, reputation management, and other ideas that have long fascinated him. (I confess that I tried reading his Makers but it just didn’t work for me.)

  • In the interview, Doctorow mentions Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, which seems worth a read, since it aspires to be both a history of how we have used energy and matter to create objects in our world but also how we might go about doing that in the future.

  • Also in this vein of the future of work or the future of ideas about work is a Guardian column on how the privatization of innovation in the U.S. is in fact starving the country of its innovation. What Ben Tarnoff argues is that private firms and private capital are not capable of taking the kind of risk that the public sector can.

Now, some of these things I read because part of me wants to write a follow-up book to The Amazing Crawfish Boat that focuses on how to address, or redress, issues that not necessarily the technology boom has brought about but the changes in our thinking: sometimes we get a little carried away. When I read things like the following in particular, I am struck by how much it might benefit from spending time with a farmer:

Accelerationists argue that technology, particularly computer technology, and capitalism, particularly the most aggressive, global variety, should be massively sped up and intensified – either because this is the best way forward for humanity, or because there is no alternative. Accelerationists favour automation. They favour the further merging of the digital and the human. They often favour the deregulation of business, and drastically scaled-back government. They believe that people should stop deluding themselves that economic and technological progress can be controlled. They often believe that social and political upheaval has a value in itself. (Andy Beckett, 11 May 2017, “Accelerationism: how a fringe philosophy predicted the future we live in”, The Guardian LINK)

Plants take time to grow. You can’t change that. (Not a lot, anyway.) People take time to mature, to digest not only their food but also the information they ingest. The problem with the current crop of people running the show is their incredibly short lives and attention spans. (I wonder if this will change when anti-agapic is discovered. When we have longer lives will we be so stuck in short cycles? Perhaps we delude ourselves into thinking that the ping of endorphins would somehow be offset by the knowledge that we have more time. Maybe we would just have longer lives but still pass through them as junkies.)

The second category is my interest in artificial intelligence and machine learning and big data. That’s up next.

The Future of Jobs

Occasionally I try to think about what the future will look like for my students: how best can I prepare them to do whatever it is they want to do? And so I find myself reading things like the World Economic Forums “The Future of Jobs”, which opens with this rather stunning claim:

65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.

Hmmm. I don’t quite know how to feel about statements like this. I get the extraordinary changes taking place in the world’s economy, but I think it also ignores the extraordinary changes not taking place: we still have bodies. We need to feed those bodies. We need to house those bodies. We need to move them about the landscape. (If the singularity comes sooner than expected, than all bets are off.)

Of Dissertations and Monographs

No comment in the process moment, but two items of interest:

* [“How long is the average dissertation”][] across a number of disciplines. The analysis uses R and includes the code.
* [“A Study of Direct Author Subvention for Publishing Humanities Books at Two Universities”][].

[“How long is the average dissertation”]:
[“A Study of Direct Author Subvention for Publishing Humanities Books at Two Universities”]:

Linguistic Engineering

A recent posting from _The Humanist_ noted the following:

> The MPhil Linguistics at the VU University Amsterdam now offers a two-years specialization in Linguistic Engineering. Linguistic Engineering is a young research field that holds a unique position between linguistics and computer science. The program is offered by the Computational Lexicology and Terminology Lab (CLTL), a leading research group in computational linguistics.
> Bachelors in linguistics, computer science, artificial intelligence or a comparable bachelor’s programme are encouraged to apply. Programming skills are not required, but candidates do need a clear motivation and a firm linguistic background.
> Take a look at the website of the CLTL for information about the program and the CLTL research group: for details.
> For more information on the MPhil Linguistics, admission and application, visit the VU University at:

Somewhere some part of me wants to respond “I do not think that means what you think it means” but another part of me recognizes that I am just fascinated by how these things are playing out.

I Am Not Late

[Kevin Kelly tells][kk] those of us interested in the conjunction of the internet, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and sensors that we are not late:

> Because here is the other thing the greybeards in 2044 will tell you: Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 2014? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category X and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh, “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

Good thing I spent the weekend with an Arduino board.


What Lies Ahead

Take another look at the photo. It was originally posted to Reddit, and its topic was the dog, sitting patiently on a bench in what, I believe, was described as an animal shelter. Sure, the dog is sweet, but what really captured me in the photograph was the setting: that bench, the glass partitions, the easy-to-clean tile floor, the cinder block walls that someone has tried to camouflage with some military-gray wainscoting as well as the slip of paper that no one could be bothered to pick up and the glimpse one catches of institutional lobby furniture suggested to me a kind of emergence of a common institutionality.

What is the consistency of that common institutionality? There is, of course, the ever-present rationalization that we are doing what we are supposed to do because the numbers all add up. No one asks larger questions, about meaning and quality, because to do so would be to call attention to oneself. You have a limited set of options: give in and go along, invest and get promoted, or retreat into whatever private world keeps you sane when you have had contact with the institutional world.

Whoa, I surprised myself with just how fast all of that tumbled out. And I wondered: is it just the current moment, the current circumstance? I work at a regional public university which has given up even trying to be better: our dean recently told a fellow faculty member that quantity of publications count, not quality. When asked about getting back some of the 20 to 25 percent in wages we have lost over the past 8 years, his response was simply “Talk to the legislature.” But he isn’t alone in not caring. A number of faculty have begun not to care, and so hallways that were once vibrant with conversation are now deserted. Office doors that were once open are now closed. People used to at least rally around getting and keeping the building clean, which has been a regular struggle for the last decade, but now no one even complains about the stairway handrails that you dare not touch or the dirt accumulating in corners of the computer classrooms. Like that piece of paper lying under the bench in the photo above, it just doesn’t matter enough to anyone anymore.

I hope this is just Louisiana, and not some larger set of trends. I gather from colleagues elsewhere that things have begun to turn around, but here, here I don’t know if they ever will. The budget for higher education might get better, but I’m afraid the organizational changes that have occurred during this period may not be so easily reversed.

Life after Academe

Zachary Ernst [left his tenured position][] at University of Missouri for a job with a Chicago-based company called [Narrative Science][]. (A very intriguing name.) His first post is a nice rant — sometimes one likes the jagged edge — but he also has a [follow-up post][] that considers the gains and losses in moving from an academic job to an industrial job.

[left his tenured position]:
[Narrative Science]:
[follow-up post]:


That is a startling statistic. Found at [Sustainable America]( There’s something to be done there — by that, I mean, there’s something I would like to do here — but I just haven’t figured out what. I mean: this kind of statistic represents a problem that seems only to be getting bigger and that, surely, means it also represents an enormous opportunity.